After my shoddy treatment at Dart Drug and my detours at the W. Bell and the computer store, I circled back to the Sugarland Run shopping plaza and applied to the hardware store where we always shopped: Hechinger, also known as the “World’s Most Unusual Lumber Yard.” Boy, was I glad I did!
It was May 1987: one month away from my high school graduation. I walked into the store, inquired about a job, and was walked back to the employee lounge in the back to fill out the application. I was then shown into the office of the store manager. The manager was a portly man with impeccable manners and a friendly, gentle, fatherly manner. He sat me down and asked a few general questions, most not directly related to hardware, from what I recall. It was more about my longer-term goals, just feeling me out. I seem to recall I set my sights high at that meeting. I was feeling pretty confident.
I can still recall the thrill I felt when he told me I was hired. I’d be making about $5 an hour – a nice jump from my Dart Drug days – and I would be assigned to the hardware department. I thanked him and walked out. I couldn’t wait to get to work!
The following Monday I arrived to put on my blue Hechinger apron and meet my bosses, Bob Ley and Ron Machado, who together ran the hardware department. Bob was a retired Army colonel who spent much of his career in Central America and spoke fluent Spanish. He was tall, thin, and balding and had some sort of dent in his head from a war wound. He carried himself smartly like the old soldier he was and was soft-spoken but never quite gruff. Occasionally he would crack a joke and punctuate it with his trademark and unusual stifled laugh. Sometimes after he went home my coworkers and I would mimic that laugh expertly.
Ron was more in charge of the tools side of the hardware department. He was also retired Army, on the short side, with black hair and slightly-tinted glasses. He was outgoing and prone to wisecrack. In general, he and Bob would work the morning shifts, staggered a bit so that Ron would work the opening and Bob would come in later in the morning. When my shift started in mid-afternoon Ron would head home, leaving Bob and me and sometimes another part-timer to run the department. Thus I didn’t get to know Ron as well as I did Bob, though we occasionally worked weekends together.
Both Bob and Ron were excellent managers. It was the first job I’d had where I felt like I was treated as an adult. Each day, Bob and Ron showed me a little more of the world of hardware. There are different nails are for different jobs. Wood screws versus machine screws. What does a router do? Who makes the best circular saw? How do you do a particular do-it-yourself project? How do you change locks and cut keys? I was a sponge for this knowledge. It was a great place for a young do-it-yourselfer to be.
It didn’t hurt that the hardware aisles had a perfect view of the cashiers and front-desk crew, most of which were pretty high school girls. They were shepherded fairly closely by their female manager while they were running the register, though. Any flirting near the register was strictly forbidden. I got to know a few and dated one for a short while. Bob and Ron didn’t leave much time for my mind to wander, unfortunately for me!
The rest of the store employees were cool, too. Most were part-time high-schoolers like me. I got to know almost all my coworkers in all the departments and they seemed to welcome me. I recall one guy in the housewares department who was a full-time teacher. He would work the summer months at the hardware store. Nice guy. Then there was the assistant store manager who was also a deputy sheriff, specializing in crime scene photography. I’d bring in my photographs and he’d offer me photography advice. There was the crazy guy in the lumber yard who held down three jobs simultaneously, one of which was a shuttle bus driver at Dulles airport. I wondered when he ever slept, if ever. I also remember the assistant store manager who seemed to be always watching everything. He liked me but suggested one day that I be bolder at approaching customers. He was right about that: I was still quite shy and normally let customers approach me first.
When there weren’t customers to assist, there was always something to do. I’d sweep the aisles, or rekey locks, or stock merchandise. When people go to a store like Home Depot or Lowe’s and ask an employee for help, many take it for granted how that employee can lead them to the exact thing they were looking for. There are thousands of items in these stores, and some of them move on a regular basis. Knowing where to find something is no mean feat, and I’m here to tell you a lot of that knowledge comes the hard way: from stocking it all, piece by painstaking piece.
Retail was different then, too. Though the store had just gotten state-of-the-art IBM cash registers we didn’t use UPC codes for pricing. Instead, we had blue plastic pricing guns that spit out yellow price tags with the Hechinger name in the middle. Into the gun we would dial in each product’s six-digit stock number and the product’s price and stamp every damn box of nails in a shipment. It was time-consuming and often inaccurate but that’s how things were done.
I hadn’t been working long at the store when the store manager died suddenly. Heart attack, I believe. The whole store came out to his funeral, myself included. The company brass showed up in force as well. It was still very much a family business, and that made an impression on me.
One Saturday, most of the store got together to play paintball at a local Loudon County field. There was still two inches of snow on the ground, so some of us clever folks wore the white throwaway paper painter’s coveralls to better blend in. My paper suit was in rags by the end of the day, my hands were numb, and my body was sore from multiple paintball impacts but boy, did we have a good time. Somewhere I have a photo of us weekend warriors, smiling at the end of that day.
Then there was the night of the lock-in. The store needed painting and there was no time to do it during business hours, so volunteers spent one night locked inside, knocking it out. It was weird being inside a somewhat darkened store with no customers around. I could get to know my coworkers and joke around more. We painted like crazy and the next day the store opened for business as usual. Today the store is a toy store but if you look carefully at the ceiling above the exit you can still make out the blue paint that I put there that night.
This being the D.C. suburbs, occasionally celebrities would come in to shop. One Sunday afternoon I spotted a man probably only a teenage wannabe cartoonist like myself would recognize. It was Jeff MacNelly, the legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. Jeff was a tall, white-haired man with big glasses and boyish looks who was unaccustomed to being recognized. He just happened to have been interviewed by Barbara Walters a few nights before, though, so I knew immediately who he was when I saw him. For the better part of an hour, I secretly followed him around the store until he got to the checkout line. There, I finally got the nerve to ask for his autograph, which he pleasantly provided while his smiling wife (and family, I recall) looked on. He never knew it, but I treasured that scrap of paper. Still do, actually.
Another celebrity was a neighbor of mine, and the father of a high-school classmate: Oliver North. This was right during the Iran-Contra scandal and North had been all over television. He would come into the store like any regular guy working on a home improvement project, only most regular guys don’t bring two stern-looking bodyguards with them. North bought lots of nails – he was working on a deck project, and by the fifth time I saw him in the hardware aisles I didn’t pay him any attention. It was a few years later that I recognized that flouting Congress’s constitutional authority wasn’t honorable after all, but he seemed like a nice guy at the time. Incidentally, Kelly was acquainted with North’s daughter and attended a cookout at the North home following graduation. Life Magazine was there taking photos and that’s how my wife-to-be appeared in the magazine.
Hechinger was based in nearby Landover, Maryland, so the company executives would occasionally visit. One of our assistant managers was related to the founders and she talked me up to the executives during one of their visits. I began to see myself going places with the company, imagining that one day I would walk the halls of the fast-growing company’s headquarters as an executive myself. I was proud when I became the store’s employee of the month for October 1987.
I’d have been happy to continue working there as I had but the parents were ready to kick me out of the nest. It was either college or the military for me, or support myself. Since a part-time job wasn’t going to pay the rent in Northern Virginia and college didn’t sound exciting, I opted to check out the military. I respected Bob’s and Ron’s military service and sought their advice on what to do. They both were very helpful in answering my questions and gave me enough confidence that I could do well. I opted for the Navy and signed the papers for the Delayed Entry Program.
I worked at Hechinger right up until I shipped out for boot camp. I figured a job would be waiting for me when I returned four years later, but plans can change quickly. Not long after I left the family moved again, and instead of Virginia I returned to North Carolina to attend N.C. State. Hechinger hadn’t ventured into North Carolina and I was now interested in a computer job, so we drifted apart. Still I was sad when the company later closed its doors in the mid-90s.
So, what happened to Hechinger? The hardware business was in a fiercely competitive battle for the biggest volumes at shrinking margins. Hechinger was fat and happy with the D.C. area’s higher margins and was unable or unwilling to take on the young upstart Home Depot, whose home turf is Atlanta, where lower margins are easier to exist on. By the time Hechinger expanded into the South with its purchase of Virginia Beach-based Home Quarters the game was already over. Then again, I’m just speculating as I never got to roam that executive suite like I’d once imagined. I do know that I got in a year or two as a loyal Home Quarters customer before the company folded.
Hechinger was very, very good to me. It was a great place to work, with supportive management, good pay, a fun work environment, and a ton of building knowledge available for learning. I’ll always look back fondly on the time I spent wearing that blue apron.
Bonus: I found this classified ad from Hechinger that appeared the Washington Post on June 27th, 1983. The store where I worked was “opening soon”:
HECHINGER One of the areas largest home improvement retail chains needs you for our new store opening soon: 255 Harry Flood Byrd Hwy. Sterling, Va. Full and Part time positions available: SALES CASHIERS WAREHOUSE RECEIVERS Experience in housewares, garden, hardware, tools, plumbing, and building material helpful. Apply in person at the Holiday Inn, (1000 Sully Rd., Sterling, Va.) Sunday, June 26th from 12 Noon-4PM; Monday, June 27th from 10AM- 1PM and 2PM-7PM; Tues day, June 28th, 10AM-1PM and 2PM-5PM. Full benefits package including retirement income program. Excellent wages. . HECHINGER THE WORLDS MOST UNUSUAL LUMBER YARD EOE